“I’ve got something to show you”, exclaimed Adam as soon as I walked into his room. “That’s why I wanted you to come here instead of meeting in the cafeteria.”
Adam went over to his desk and picked up what looked like a shiny black pebble that fit comfortably inside his hand. I could see from the tension in his arm that it was heavy though, uncommonly heavy for a pebble of that size. At first I thought of lead, but then I wasn’t sure that lead would be dense enough for the object’s apparent weight.
“This is it. It was brought to me by a friend who found it when he was trekking in the Atlas mountains. He said it caught his attention because it looked pretty, but it wasn’t heavy then. He put it in a zipped pocket of his backpack and walked for four more days before returning to Boston. He said that his backpack had felt like it started to bear down more on his shoulders in the last days of his walk, but he put that down to tiredness. It wasn’t until he was back home and unpacking that he directly handled the object again, and by then it was obvious that it was significantly heavier. It didn’t make any sense, so he brought it to me to have a look at it.”
That sounded farcical. I thought Adam must be joking, although I had to admit that he wasn’t really the joking type. “And so what have you found?”.
“Well it’s certainly very dense. What’s more, I have established that its density varies. It seems to change at random intervals. There’s no pattern to it; the data shows no obvious connection with the time interval between changes in density and although my friend told me that when he found the object it was much lighter I have not uncovered any discernible trend. All my data points over the last few days, hundreds of them in total, are densities scattered in the range 35 to 43 grams per cubic centimetre.”
I was still waiting for the punchline, but it didn’t come, at least not yet. “Have you found any microstructure? Do you know what it’s made of? You are a materials scientist after all so your friend brought it to the right place.”
“I can’t cut it, grind it, or scratch it. There’s no way to know how hard it is because it seems there’s nothing we have that can make any impression on it at all. I’ve tried different forms of crystallography, but everything I point at it simply reflects off the surface, there’s no penetration or diffraction. I’ve not tried to find a melting point because I don’t want to risk changing its structure, but I’ll bet that it’s higher than anything we’ve ever seen before.”
I looked again at Adam. His face was pale, his hair was uncharacteristically untidy, and his lab coat was crumpled and even had small tear in it just below the left pocket. In short, he was giving a good impression of someone who had been working obsessively over long hours. I gave up on the idea that Adam, of all people, was trying to play a joke on me. “This is extraordinary. Can I take a closer look at it? How can I help you with this?”
“Well I don’t know what to make of it. I’ve no clue what it is. The inability to penetrate it even with X-rays is unheard of, but I am sure we could come up with some explanation given enough time. The bit that is totally unfathomable however is the variation in density. The only thing I could think of is some absurd macroscopic quantum effect taking place. You know, a collapse of the wave function into discrete states upon measurement. I am aware that that’s all wrong, the scale is vastly incorrect and also I was continuously measuring the density so there are no separate observations to cause the wave function to collapse. What’s more there are some serious conservation issues here. Where does the mass or energy come from, or go to, when it changes density? I’ve not taken absolutely precise measurements but there have been no observable changes in the object’s volume, certainly not sufficient to account for the magnitude of the changes in weight, and yet I’ve not found any exchange of energy between it and its environment. Anyway, you are a quantum field theorist so I wanted to see what you think of my wave function collapse idea, the only one I’ve been able to come up with.”
I knew I should be fascinated but I didn’t like the sound of this. I suppose I went with my gut and not my head. “Adam, I think you’re on to something there”, I replied. I tried to look enthusiastic and I don’t think I was very convincing, but Adam didn’t seem to notice. I suppose he was just excited that I had taken an interest in his explanation for the impossible object. “How many people know about this?”
“My friend who found it obviously, and apart from that only you and me. I’ve not shown it or the data to any one else yet until we understand it better. In the meantime it’s only people I know well and trust, and that means you when it comes to the quantum physics angle.”
I was already part of the select inner circle, that was good. “OK, can I take it to the physics laboratory at my university. There is something I would like to try. I assume it doesn’t emit anything harmful so if you are alright with that I can go right away and let you know tomorrow if I’ve been able to produce a result to support my hunch.”
“Sure, thank you so much for helping, and at such short notice. I really appreciate this. I’m sure there are no harmful emissions from it, it’s one of the first things I checked.” Adam went behind his desk and produced a metal box with a foam padded interior. He placed the object in the box and handed it to me. I managed to hold the box in one hand, although it was a strain.
“Adam, I’ll call you tomorrow” I told him as I left. Adam’s office was on the ground floor so it was a short distance from there to my car parked in the lot. I placed the box beside me on the passenger seat. It took me around forty minutes in the Boston traffic to get to Houghs Neck. I drove to the very end of the peninsular and stopped the car in one of the marked spaces on the pier. I sat for a moment looking out over the slate sea and darkening sky. A stiff breeze blew across the waves, strong enough for a couple of seagulls to hover apparently motionless above the pier. It seemed that the elements agreed with what I was about to do.
I opened the box and extracted the object, feeling its unusual weight in my fist. With the other hand I opened the car door and stepped out into the wind. I couldn’t see anyone else around, presumably because of the weather, but it would not have mattered anyway. I walked steadily to the end of the pier and there I threw the object with all my might out into the sea. It didn’t go that far but now it was just another pebble hidden from view on the sea bed and that was all that mattered.
Without the object itself no one would believe Adam. If all that he had said was true, and I had little reason to doubt him, then this object could not be known. Its very presence means that none of what we thought we knew about the physics of the natural world can be correct. With this object in plain view the Core Theory would simply be wrong, and we would have to start again, as ignorant as primitive savages. I could not let this happen. We need our illusions of understanding, and our sense that we have some control over the world. Without this we will be back to gods and auguries. Science may worship truth but admitting error on this scale would be too much damage for even science to sustain in the face of a humanity that has such desperation for fixed anchors, for an illusion of certainty.
I don’t know if there are other such objects. Even if there aren’t, I expect one day this one will be found again. In the meantime let the Enlightenment continue whilst it is still possible.